Votive altar dedicated to Basque deity found in medieval well

An excavation of a medieval monastery on Mount Arriaundi, northern Spain, has unearthed a Roman-era votive altar inscribed with a dedication to the Basque deity Larrahe. The altar dates to the 1st century A.D. and is one of only three altars found in Spain with a dedication to Larrahe. It is the only one of the three to have been recovered from an archaeological excavation.

Located five miles northwest of Pamplona in the Gulina river valley near the tiny town of Larunbe, Mount Arriaundi reaches 3100 feet of elevation. From the summit you can see the entire Pamplona Basin and that prime viewing spot is easily defended thanks to an unscalable promontory on the south side. Arriaundi was occupied from the Roman era through the Middle Ages and into the Modern era almost continuously. There was a Roman presence in the Pamplona Basin since the Sertorian War in the 1st century B.C. In the 1st century A.D., the major communication routes were built It overlooked an important road to Pamplona from the Roman era onward, and a monastery dedicated to Saint Stephen was built there in the 11th century.

For ten years, archaeologists and seasonal volunteers have been excavating the summit to uncover the remains of the medieval monastery whose location was lost over the centuries. The excavations have revealed the monastery’s rectangular floorplan with three semicircular apses one end. In 2022, they discovered the opening of a medieval well in the floor of a walled room behind the right apses. Inside the well, they found the stone altar. The presence of a votive altar is evidence that cult worship took place on Arriaundi in the 1st century. The altar would originally have been standing. It was thrown or placed in the well with the inscription facing downwards.

The inscription reads:
VAL(eria) V[i]
TEL.LA
M(erito?) LA R
A HE VO(tum)
L(ibens) S(olvit)

This is a standard formula for votive altars that translates to: “Valeria Vitella fulfills her vow to Larrahe freely and deservedly.”

Although archaeological materials from the Roman period such as ceramic fragments, sandal studs and coins have been documented in isolation at the Arriaundi site, the discovery of the altar provides significant advances on the beliefs of the Basques , the area of ​​worship of the deity Larrahe. and the syncretism between the Roman and Basque worlds.

The name of this indigenous god or goddess is only attested in three other altars from the Basque territory, located in the Arga basin and its tributary the Salado River: Muruzabal de Andión (Mendigorria, ancient Andelo), Irujo and Riezu. That of Larunbe is exceptional since it is the piece that has appeared further north and at a higher altitude, and the only one recovered in the context of archaeological intervention . This expands the scope of influence hitherto known for this divinity.

It is therefore an evidently Basque deity, since it has a final part, written -he , which we can probably interpret as the form of the Basque dative, that is, it marks who it is dedicated to: the deity Larra . The Basque name, with its connection to current Basque, leads us to interpret it as a deity related to the field or agricultural territory.

The Larunbe altar extends the territorial range of the written evidence of deities and the Basque language further north. The altar’s find site is on the limits of what could be the Basque heritage territory and its (probably Vardulo) neighbors. The testimony of the altar delimits this range a little more and points us to this area of ​​worship of the Basque divinity at the end of the 1st century AD. It is one more testimony that helps to delve deeper into the origins and evolution of Vasconic languages and Basque.

One thought on “Votive altar dedicated to Basque deity found in medieval well

  1. For whatever reason, “E” seems to have been rendered as “II” (or what is left of it), i.e. “LA R(R) A HE VO(tum)” from “LA R A HII VO(tum)”.

    Apparently, there are plenty of votive dedications to a (male) celtic deity by the name of ‘Leherennus’, while in modern Basque ‘Lehenengo’ means ‘First’. The Romans seem to have turned him into Jupiter or Mars:

    01. CIL XIII, 96: Leheren(n)o / deo / Bambix Sori / f(ilius) v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito).

    09. CIL XIII, 106: Leheren(n)i(!) / Uriaxe / Ilunnosi / filia.

    16. CIL XIII, 113: Leherenn(o) / Marti / Titullus A/moeni fil(ius) / v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito).
    17. CIL XIII, 114: [Leh]erenno / [M]arti / […]rania / [I]ngenua / [v(otum)] s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito).

    The French Wikipedia, by the way, comes up with a surprisingly complex list of deities as the –(Pre)Roman– “Panthéon pyrénéen”, i.e. from Æreda (Haute-Garonne) over Lahe, Larraso(n) (“deux inscriptions latines”) and the mentioned Leherennus down to Vaxus and Xuban (Haute-Garonne).

    ——-
    PS: Back in the 90ies, I spent my summer vacation in Haute-Garonne, and my friend was confused. According to her, people spoke a “rather weird kind of French” (i.e. from a German point of view), and it may have indeed been influenced by Catalan or Occitan.

    Note that we did not have *any* digital equipment back then and really had to ask the mountain yokels, of which a considerable amount I recall as having been under the influence of Red wine 🍷️

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